Mindfulness meditation is becoming a common practice in the West to help us stay grounded inside of busy and demanding lives. The practice can improve our ability to stay in the present moment which maximizes our experience of being alive. Mindfulness can also improve the skills we use to face life’s challenges with grace1.
Research now indicates that mindfulness practice improves our ability to concentrate, reduces stress and anxiety, improves mood and helps us to better cope with physical illness and pain2. The possibilities of having consolidated these practices during childhood are potentially infinite, and accumulating research supports that children can benefit from the practice3.
What is mindfulness really? Mindfulness can be achieved via meditation practice or cultivated in everyday life (e.g., while you are brushing your teeth or driving a car). A simple definition of mindfulness is: “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally”4. Mindfulness is difficult concept to grasp by just reading or talking about it, because it is an experiential state. Trying to define mindfulness is a little bit like explaining what a strawberry tastes like. To truly understand mindfulness, you need to practice mindfulness.
What is the purpose of mindfulness practice? Remember that the aim of mindfulness meditation is to focus your attention on purpose in the present moment nonjudgmentally. The aim is not to achieve any particular state such as relaxation or equanimity or immediate states of spiritual enlightenment. You may experience these benefits from meditation, but achievement of these states during practice is not the aim. There is no success of failure to mindfulness meditation, it is really all about commitment to the practice and after a while, the long term benefits will be obvious.
Often, at first, mindfulness practice can bring up unpleasant experiences such as boredom, physical discomfort or restlessness. This is expected, common, and perfectly okay. Just like becoming physically fit, it may take patience to cultivate the benefits of being “mentally fit”. Accordingly, when you start practicing mindfulness, it is important to keep the length of formal practice very short
(between 3 to 5 minutes). If you can do the practice at least once, if not twice a day, this is an excellent way to start.
Mindfulness and religion: Many people of particular religious orientations avoid mindfulness as they believe it may not support their individual religious practice. Mindfulness practice in itself is a nonsecular activity. Some of the creators of mindfulness practice in the west are deeply religious people.
For example, Kabat-Zinn was a student of Zen Master Seung Sahn and a founding member of
Cambridge Zen Center. His practice of yoga and studies with Buddhist teachers led him to integrate their teachings with those of Western science in his well-known mindfulness-based stress reduction program.
Ways to encourage your child to practice mindfulness:
1. Modelling: Children will become interested in mindfulness practice if they see that it is something that their parents do and are genuinely interested in. I recommend that you practice a simple and short mindfulness meditation yourself on a daily basis. Your child may join in if they wish, but don’t force him/her to participate. Just make sure that you turn off all electronic devises during this time so that your children won’t be so distracted, that what you are doing goes unnoticed. My experience of practicing mindfulness in front of my children is that my 5 year old sometimes sits with me and, at other times, she walks in and out of the space. My toddler usually hangs about my legs but seems drawn to the energy (especially when dad joins in too).
2. Manage your expectations: don’t expect your children to sit there in a yoga position like a Zen Master. We looked at the utility of mindfulness meditation in a study on 76 children aged 8 to 12 and found that children rarely still during meditation. They often cannot close their eyes and usually wiggle, giggle and squirm. This is okay, as mentioned above; the purpose of mindfulness mediation is to focus your attention in the present moment. In my experience, children often wiggle when they put effort into concentrating.
3. Reward their efforts: Encourage your child’s interest, efforts, and willingness to particulate in the practice. If you are into reward systems, implement small rewards such as a sticker chart or point system, or even a fun game with mum or dad when the meditation time is complete.
4. Not too long: In my experience, an appropriate length of time for most children 12 years and under would be about 3 minutes, and then, building up to 5 to 10 minutes after 3 to 6 months of daily practice. For your own mindfulness practice, keep it short when mediating in front of your kids so that the practice is always accessible to them. You will want to lengthen the practice time for yourself as you become more accustomed to meditation. My suggestion is that you engage in a longer practice in the morning, before your children awake or after they go to sleep at night.
5. Create space: Creating a specific space with your child in your house for meditation is a good idea. Having a specific meditation spot makes it special for children. Encourage your children to bring special objects (e.g. a mediating teddy bear, their favourite artwork, gemstones). You may wish to add meaningful symbols of your own.
Mindfulness activities for children
1. Blowing bubbles and watching where the bubbles travel.
2. Eating a raisin or sultana mindfully – firstly studying what it looks like (as if you had never seen such a thing before), holding it in your fingers or palm of your hand and then holding it to your nose and smelling it. Placing it in your mouth (without biting), then biting it, noticing the taste and then after a while swallowing it. Sometimes people do this meditation with chocolate!
3. Everyday mindfulness
a. Mindful walking (e.g., a mindful walk around the house or garden)
b. Mindfully brushing teeth
c. Mindfully grooming your pet
d. Mindfully throwing a ball/dancing /moving
4. Mindful sound game. Have children listen to a sound (e.g., a bell, Tibetan meditation chimes, a “singing bowl, a rain stick or you can strike a note on a piano). Any sound that will resonate and gradual vanish will work well. Ask the child to raise their hand when they no longer hear the sound.
5. Mindful play – use finger paints, a water or sand table – any kind of fun sensory activity that kids can get their hands into. As they play, guide them to be fully present in the moment whenever they get distracted. Your can focus on their senses – what they see, hear, feel and smell.
Where can I get some mindfulness audio scripts?
There are many free audio scripts that you can download from the internet. Here are a few:
- Smiling Mind provides free age appropriate meditations for children;
- Meditation in Schools provides free guided audio meditations for children;
- Easy meditation for beginners provides free audio meditations for people new to mindfulness meditation;
There are many free and inexpensive Apps available on smart phone devisers. Here are a few:
- Mindfulness Meditation; Developers: Hector Rodriguez Fornies
- Mindfulness Meditation; Developers: Mental Workout Inc.
- The Mindfulness App; Developer: MindApps
1 Kabat-Zinn. J. (1990). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. New York, NY: Random House.
2 Baer, R. A. (2003). Mindfulness training as a clinical intervention: A conceptual and empirical review. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10, 125-143. doi: 10.1093/clipsy.bpg015
3 Burke, C. A. (2010). Mindfulness-based approaches with children and adolescents: A preliminary review of current research in an emergent field. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 19, 133-144. doi: 10.1007/s10826-009-9282-x
4 Kabat-Zinn. J. (1990). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. New York, NY: Random House.